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How to Fly Fish (Casting, Gear and Flies)
Everybody’s fly fishing career tells a story. For some, it’s a love poem and for others it’s more like a short news blurb. Those who have tried to fly fish all have a deep respect for it; even if they quit. Between the intricacies of the techniques/gear and deciphering nature, one can spend a lifetime trying to master it. Any person who has an interest in fly fishing needs to give it a try. It takes a bit to get started, but once you’re hooked, good luck getting away.
What Fly Fishing Gear do I Need to get started?
Fly Rod Selection
First, you need to choose a rod. Rod choice all depends on what type of fish you’re targeting as well as the water you’re trying to fish. At times, you’ll need to finesse your way into tight areas and in others you’ll need to cover wide open water. The most versatile rods that allow you to both are five or six weights. Both five and six weight rods can handle the majority of the trout you’re targeting as well as bass, pike and panfish.
If you’re targeting Steelhead, Salmon, or any type of salt water fish, you’ll want between an eight and ten weight rod. These will function well in faster water as well as have enough power to fight those stronger fish.
Brands like Orvis, Eagle Claw and Reddington all have great options for beginners.
Fly Reel Selection
Your fly reel needs to match your fly rod. You’re allowed a bit of wiggle room, but not much. If you are fishing with a six weight rod, it’s okay to use a five weight reel and vice versa. It’s important to keep your rod balanced. You don’t want to be using a seven weight reel on a four weight rod because it’ll throw off your casting. You won’t feel as in control and likely miss a few of your spots if the weights are not compatible.
Learn exactly what size reel you should be looking for in this in depth article. How to Select the Right Size Fly Reel
For beginners, there are great options like the Orvis Encounter or Orvis Clearwater that come with both a rod and reel. These are smart to purchase to ensure you won’t make a mistake when choosing the proper reel for your rod.
The safest play is to get the same weight reel as your fly rod. They don’t have to be a matching brand, but if they’re the same weight, you’ll be in great condition.
Selecting a Fly Line
Fly line is the colorful line that is attached to your backing and leader. There are two things to remember when choosing a fly line: taper and density. Taper is the shape of your fly line. The most common option is going to be Weight Forward. This line is heavier towards its front and will make casting easier. Plus, you can fish on it using dry flies as well as streamers. Other tapers include Bass Bug/Saltwater, Double Taper and Shooting Taper.
I’ve sold thousands of fly lines. That experience has taught me a couple things about fly line. Read which fly line I use for catching trout. The Best Fly Line for Trout
Density determines the line’s ability to float. There are floating, sinking, intermediate and interchangeable options. Floating line is best for dry flies. Sinking line is great for heavier streamers that need to sit near the bottom. Intermediate line sits a few feet below the surface to find the mid-column fish. Interchangeable lines are also an option. They are the most expensive, but most convenient. You can change out the tips of the line to sinking, floating or intermediate via a loop knot.
Flies Fill Your Fly Box Right
There are a few flies that every fly angler must know. The first is the Adams. The Adams is a common dry fly that is tied to imitate an adult mayfly, caddis or even a midge. They’re anywhere from size 10 to a size 22 hook. The most common type you’ll find is the Parachute Adams. It’s tied with calf hair to give a greater buoyancy and more visibility. They’ll catch fish in almost every part of the world.
The second main type of fly that anglers will find is the Woolly Bugger. This is a fly anglers best friend. It can be used to catch anything from Salmon to Northern Pike. Woolly Bugger’s can be found with or without a beadhead and in every color imaginable. It’s supposed to imitate a small baitfish and anger any fish it passes. You’ll find them anywhere from size 4-10. Get used to throwing these! They’re a great search fly if you’re on the hunt for some bigger fish.
The Pheasant Tail Nymph is the third most common fly that you’ll find. Nymph’s are meant to imitate a hatching fly. The Pheasant Tail is on a size 12-16 hook tied with small bits of pheasant hair. Trout have a hard time saying no to these flies. Again, a great search fly if you’re unsure what to throw.
Setting up a Fly Rod
Remember that all fly lines need backing. This is the line that is attached to your reel and your fly line. It’s a thin, rope-like material that’s going to add some more line to your reel and help you fight those fish that choose to run. You can find it in 20-30 pound test. It’s smart to tie around 75-100 yards of backing to your reel.
The fly line is the 30 or so yards of thicker material that you tie on to the backing. The other end of the line is what attaches to your leader. It’s often found in yellow, orange or green.
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Your leader is similar to a traditional fishing line. It’s either fluorocarbon or monofilament and you attach your fly to it. Fish can be spooky. If they see a bright green fly line right next to your fly, they’re not going to hit it. Your seven to 12 foot leader is the buffer you need. You can find it in any size test. Most fly lines have a loop on the end and all it takes is for you to attach your leader to that loop and you’re good to go.
The final step is the fly. Tie your fly on to the leader like you would any bait to a fishing line. A nail not or something similar is all you need.
Casting a Fly Rod Basics
You’ll grip the rod just above the reel. Like baseball or golf, grip is important. You don’t want to be too aggressive. You need it to have some freedom in your hand, but not too much. Keep your thumb on top of the cork while pointed at the tip of the rod. Most rods will have a small piece of cork below the reel, but you don’t need to worry about this.
The next step is casting. Casting a fly rod is all feel. The more you do it, the better you will get. First, stretch your arm out in front of you and keep a slight bend in it. You’ll be moving your arm back and forth and it’s important to keep it level. You don’t want your arm going up and down otherwise your cast won’t be as efficient.
Next, pay attention to your wrist. You’ll need to flick your wrist slightly to get the fly line moving out of the rod. Don’t be too aggressive with the wrist flip and remember to keep it level. As more fly line exits the tip, start moving your arm further back and forth. Then, start paying attention to your fly line. You want it to form a loop. As you see the loop start to form, move your arm forward and flick your wrist.
With your non-casting hand, you’ll hold the fly line. You want to keep ahold of it to make sure it doesn’t get tangled and control the pace it exits your rod tip.
Different Fly Rod Casting Techniques
To effectively fly fish you’ll learn three casting techniques.
- Dry Fly Casting
- Nymphing Casting
With dry fly casting the objective is to present the fly to fish feeding off the surface of the water. Purist will say this is the only kind of fly fishing, but I wouldn’t waste anytime listening to that. Dry fly fishing is artful, but it’s not the most effective style.
Nymph casting is one of the more difficult styles, but is probably the most productive. Nymphing is taking the fly to the fish. Drifting a sinking fly in a natural way with the added complexity of not seeing the fly in most cases. Dry fly fishing is a visual thing, while nymph fishing is productive.
Streamer casting is one of my favorite styles of fly fishing. Not as productive as either dry fly or nymph casting, I would say it’s more active for the fly fisher. When a bass or trout takes a streamer it’s deliberate. As a fisherman you get to pick your target and actively put action into the fly
Casting your Fly in Different Types of Water
Fly Fishing in Moving Water
When you’re fishing moving water, presentation is key. Your fly needs to look natural. If you have no idea how something floats down the river, grab a piece of grass or small stick and toss it into the water. Watch where it goes and what currents take it. Your fly will do something similar.
You don’t want to cast your fly directly to where you think a fish might be. For example, if you see a nice pool in the bend of a river, don’t throw directly into the middle of it. You want to cast upstream into the current and let your fly float into the pool. Most fish will be sitting towards the front of the pool waiting for first dibs on the food that arrives.
If you’re in fast moving current, you want to find the “seams.” These seams are the slower moving sections of water within the fast current. They usually have the white foam floating down them. You want to cast to one side or the other of the seam and guide your fly into it. This will create a natural drift.
Fly Fishing in Still Water
Fly fishing still water is going to likely tire your arm. Similar to spin fishing, you want to find cover, drop offs and weed lines. These are where the fish are. The fish don’t change locations just because you’re using a fly rod. Since there is no current to move your fly, you’ll have to do the moving. Once you cast, start stripping your fly towards you. This can be done in numerous ways. You’ll use your off hand to pull the line back towards you like you’re reeling in a spin rod.
Practicing Fly Casting is Easy
Before you try and tackle a stream or river, practice casting. Find a local park or use your backyard. Be sure there are no obstacles around and start casting. The more comfortable you are with casting, the better shape you’ll be in by the time you hit the water. If all you have to do is worry about reading the water, life is easy. Knowing you can hit your spots will help you catch fish.
Where to Find Fish When Fly Fishing
Anywhere you can catch fish on a spin rod, you can catch fish on a fly rod. The important thing is matching your fly to what the fish want. You can fly fish in a pond, lake, stream or ocean. It doesn’t matter. You’ll be using artificials, but that shouldn’t hinder you. Take a look around the body of water and see what bait you can find. Next, start casting in different areas. If it’s your first time fishing a body of water, don’t be afraid of trial and error.
When is the Best Time to Fly Fish
Fly fishing is best done during the hatches. These hatches are also when the fish feed. Right around sunrise and sunset are when the flies hatch. Most fish like to plunge to the deepest parts of the body of water in the middle of the day. They aren’t as worried about feeding and more focused on staying cool. If you can get out to the river 15 or 20 minutes before sunrise, you’ll start seeing the flies hatch and fish surfacing.
I wrote an article based on YEARS of data on when and where I caught fish. Read it here -> When is the Best Time of Day to Fly Fish
The same rules apply for sunset. Flies are finally hatching and the fish are in a feeding frenzy. It’s also possible to catch fish later at night, but your best times of day are early morning and right around dusk.
As far as time of year is concerned, you can fly fish year round. It’s going to take different techniques, but it’s always possible. In the spring, water levels will be higher because of snow melt and more moisture. Fish will be harder to catch because of the amount of food they’re finding. The summer is great once the flows decrease, but beware of the extremely hot temperatures.
By late summer and early fall, the terrestrial flies can come out of your box and that’s when fishing can really get fun. All bites in the winter are going to be soft. Smaller flies with indicators are going to do the trick.
Approaching the Fish and Fly Selection
Whenever you’re approaching a body of water, stay quiet and calm. Depending on the clarity, you may even have to stay low. Fish spook when they see big shadows. Stay 15 yards away from the water and pick your spot before you approach. If you wander the banks looking for a perfect spot, you may spook the fish and ruin your shot. Also, don’t slap your fly on the water multiple times while you’re trying to get your fly out of your rod. Make sure you have your leader and fly line out of the tip before you start false casting. The less movement, the better.
Matching the Hatch in Fly Fishing
It’s important to be selective when choosing a fly. You’ll hear the phrase “match the hatch” the more you get into fly fishing. Yes, there is some truth in the fact that fish will eat anything that’s presented well, but it’s better to have a bit of margin for error when you fly fish.
You’ll need it. Finding the match to the hatch can be done in a few different ways. First, if it’s a well-known body of water, there should be hatch charts at the local fly shop or on an online forum. If not, look around as you walk to the river. Are there flies buzzing around your head? Are there big swarms off the water? Are there some stuck in the cobwebs? If so, do your best to catch one and place it on your fly box. See if you have anything that looks similar.
Setting the Hook and Reeling in Your Fish
Setting the hook with a fly rod takes some getting used to, especially if you’re a traditional angler. Remember in fly fishing that your arms need to do opposite things when setting the hook. If you feel a tug, your rod hand can move up like you’re setting the hook on a traditional setup. Your off hand should be going in the opposite direction. When you’re lifting up with your rod hand, you’ll be pulling down hard on the fly line with your off hand. This action will set the hook.
When reeling in your fish, strip it in like you normally would. If it’s big enough, it may require you to get it on the reel. However, most fish are catchable by stripping the fish into yourself. Remember to let it run when it decides to run and take advantage of it when it’s trying to rest.
Netting your Fish and Handling it
When you go to net your fish, be careful. You need to keep the line taught. Every fly angler has learned this the hard way. As soon as you reach for the fish, the line may slip out of your fingers and the fish throws the hook. Keep the line taught and lift your rod up to get the fish closer. Another technique is to pull the line as tight as you’re willing and let go. This will automatically pull the fish towards you. Don’t use this technique unless the fish is close.
When handling your fish, be sure to wet your hands. Trout, for example, have a slime on their bodies that is necessary for survival. Handling a trout with dry hands removes this slime and can potentially kill them.
Do You Keep Your Fish or Release it?
If you decide to keep your fish, be sure to keep it cool. Fish meat can spoil easily. If you know it’s going to be a long day on the water, bring a stringer and keep the fish in the water. Otherwise, bring a cooler with ice to store them.
If you choose to release the fish, don’t just throw it in the water. If you handled it and took some pictures, it may need to be revived. To revive a fish, place it in the water and hold its underbelly. As you’re holding it, move it back in forth to get water moving through the gills. Keep doing this until the fish swims off under its own power.
Ways to Stay Safe Fly Fishing
Fly fishing can be dangerous. Be sure to have proper equipment and prepare for an emergency. Perhaps the most important piece of gear is your footwear. Whatever shoes you’re wearing need to have grip. Slipping on a rock and falling in the water can be dangerous. Not only could you get hurt, but you could also lose quite a bit of fly gear. Know your limits and don’t take any risks. Also, be aware of any animals or dangers that may hinder your time on the water.
Don’t Break the Law When Fly Fishing
Every state requires a fishing license. Even if you’re fishing for a few hours on one day, buy a license. For one, they’re not very expensive and the money will go to preserving the body of water you’re using. Find the states’ Game and Fish Department website and look for the licenses tab. It’s an easy process!
Also, be aware of land regulations as well as how many fish you can keep. Each state is different so it’s smart to know your limits. The Game and Fish Department website for each state will clearly lay out these guidelines.
Talk to a Local Fly Shop
Local fly shops are amazing. They’re going to have all of the equipment you’ll need to have a successful day on the water. Plus, if you buy things, they’re more likely to share extra information. Either put in a phone call or stop by and see what intel they have. Fly fishing is a niche community so it’s best to support any fly company you can.
At the End of the Fly Line
Fly fishing is not for the faint of heart. Spending the day on the water will likely come with getting stuck, scratched and humiliated. However, there are few better feelings than catching a fish on the fly rod. Always try to learn something new on the water. Fish are different in every body of water. The closer you pay attention to the details, the more success you will have.